The culture of Indonesia is highly diverse, with over 300 ethnic groups speaking over 700 different languages. Depending on the area in which you are traveling there may be particular nuances which apply however the basic rules of etiquette apply as in any country.
In general, the following rules apply across the country and by familiarizing yourself with the following you too, can and will experience the harmony that's at the heart of the Indonesian culture.
Indonesian people are known to be very happy and approachable. When interacting with a local, a smile is always appreciated. Indonesians do not welcome a negative, hostile or arrogant demeanour. Greet others with the word “Selamat”
Pronounced “Sell-a-mat”, this means peace and should be said slowly and with genuine sincerity.
Use The Right Hand
Indonesians have a high population with Muslim and Hindu faith which believe the left hand is unclean. The left hand is perceived as the hand used for the toilet or bathroom activity. Therefore hand shaking, gift giving, eating or pointing the finger are to be done with the right hand.
Avoid Public Displays Of Affection
Shaking hands are the extent of acceptable physical contact in public. Locals are easily offended should overly visible displays of affection be witnessed.
The Head Is Considered Sacred
Never touch someone’s head, including a child's as the head is considered where the spirit lives. Never pass objects above someone’s head as this too is considered offensive.
Remove Your Shoes
When entering a home, leave your shoes at the front door when and keep both feet on the floor when seated. It is important not to show the soles of your feet nor point the bottom of your feet towards someone in Indonesia.
Indonesians May Ask To Take Your Photo
In some areas of Indonesia, the locals believe that taking photographs is a way of honouring someone. So don’t be surprised if they ask you for a photo.
Indonesian are relatively conservative in comparison to most Westerners. If visiting a temple ensure shirts are worn to cover shoulders and the top parts of the arms. Sarongs (and ceremonial sashes) can be used to cover the legs for women and are sometimes available to be rented at temples.
Indonesians enjoy a harmonious culture and have no appreciation for conflict in their society. If you raise your voice or become irate in public to a local, you will embarrass them causing shame. Such outbursts are considered inappropriate and a situation may escalate quickly if not managed in a diplomatic fashion.
Village Intrigue At Visitors
Whilst cities like Jakarta and Bali may be more cosmopolitan and Western, villages and farming areas are often not, as a consequence, the locals may take an interest in you. If you are walking down a residential street and you run into a local villager, it is polite to smile sincerely and say: “Boleh?”. This means “May I?” and shows you are polite and friendly.
It is customary to bring a small gift if invited to an Indonesian family’s home. A small gift from your home country is a good idea. You could also bring flowers, chocolates, sweets and stationery. Depending on the family’s religion, alcohol may not be appropriate. Do not bring table food as you may insult the host by making them believe their food is not good enough. Gift giving in Indonesia depends greatly on the ethnicity of the receiver.
Indonesia has a complex blend of cultures including Chinese, European, Indian and Malay. With the largest Muslim population in the world it also has a number of Christian Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus. If in doubt of the background of people whom you are visiting – gifts from your home country can be a safe bet.
If greeting a group of Indonesians, always greet the eldest members of the group first. When dining with a group of locals always ensure that the most senior person is served first and wait for them to start eating before you do.
Do haggle when you are at the markets or at sidewalk stalls
If you are recognised as a tourist the vendors will increase the prices. Browse and become familiar with the local prices and customs before making a purchase. By building a friendly rapport with the vendor, you will be more likely to get a better discount. Avoid putting your hands on your hips or crossing your arms when negotiating as this alludes to a negative stance and may be seen as threatening.
If you are heading to the popular island destination of Bali, then check out my location specific Bali Holiday Packing Checklist Infographic below.